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Politics on wheels

The crisis is pushing more citizens to abandon their cars for Lebanon’s chaotic commuting. France’s donation of 50 new buses revives hopes for an organized transportation system, but also raises many questions around its diplomacy.

Many Lebanese have long relied on an informal public transportation system with the economic crisis increasing that dependency. Photo: Philippe Pernot, NOW

Chaos, danger, poverty and harassment often come to mind when thinking about Lebanon’s public transportation system. Many Lebanese hold entrenched stereotypes against the dilapidated vans and the aging white buses which speed through the country’s cities and highways. To the innocent onlooker, there are no timetables or bus stops, let alone any guarantees of a safe ride.

“The system is more organized than it seems,” explained Chadi Faraj, laughing. He co-founded the Bus Map Project and Rider’s Rights, two grassroots initiatives making sense out of the apparent chaos and defending commuters’ rights. “It’s organic and emerged out of the needs of Lebanese society, when the State was absent.”

Most people ignore that the shared vans and buses operate according to a government plan from 1994, with bus numbers, lines, tickets, controllers and fixed prices. “There even is an informal timetable, which is negotiated between the drivers, operators and passengers,” Faraj adds. Most operators are small family companies who own a few buses or vans. More than 4,000 vans and 2,000 buses possess legally registered red plates. In addition, some private companies assure specific lines, like the Connexion between Beirut and Tripoli.

Cheap commuting during the crisis

As Lebanon is going through its worst social and economic crisis, many Lebanese have rediscovered the buses and vans they long had traded for cars.

“The shared transports are suffering from a bad reputation as being dangerous or reserved to the poor,” Faraj said. They historically have owned the nickname of “state mules” (jahesh ed-dawlé). But they deserve more credit, in his opinion. “Contrarily to all state-owned systems, they have survived all dangers – from the civil war to the corona pandemic, all the way through today’s crisis.”

Zeina, a 43-year-old inhabitant of the Keserwan area, is one of those forced to delve into the chaotic honking and racing-like driving. “My car got too expensive, so now I have to take the bus,” she sullenly said, as she stepped into a bus in Dora. Located in Burj Hammoud, the bustling roundabout is one of Beirut’s two main bus hubs – bordered with popular coffee shops and decayed buildings, and resonating with voices and honks.

Because of the economic crisis, fuel prices multiplied tenfold – one gallon now costs more than the minimum wage. The bus prices, on the other hand, have remained low: between 50 cents for a city ride up to 2 dollars between two cities. But they come at their own cost. “Taking the bus can be so tiring and stressful! It’s not very convenient and there is some harassment. And the bus drivers are so impolite sometimes,” Zeina criticized.

These concerns have led to the founding of the Bus Map Project and of the Riders Rights group in 2015 and 2019, respectively. “We insist that all passengers should be treated fairly and included. Today, there are many problems. Not only do women face harassment, but there is no single bus accessible to handicapped people. We are totally excluded,” denounces Fadi Sayegh, a member of Riders Rights and of the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities.

With love, from Paris

But the tide may be turning. The Lebanese government received 50 buses from the French RATP – Paris’ public transportation company – on May 23rd, a few months after an agreement was found between PM Najib Mikati, Minister of Public Works Ali Hamieh, and his French counterpart, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari. The French maritime company CMA-CGM shipped them over and promised to repair 40 old government buses – for free. Along with this, a two-year technical assistance and training is included in the package.

“It is the government’s role to organize the public transport, I’ve been insisting on this for years,”  Ziad Nasr, director of the Railway and Public Transportation Authority (RPTA), rejoiced. “It’s urgent because the people need a reliable and cheap way of transportation to go to work,” he added. Until now, the RPTA had less than 35 still functioning buses, and mainly dedicated its work to managing the state’s lands along the abandoned railways.

“The lines will circulate on specific lanes within Beirut and extend all the way to Tripoli, to the South, and to the Bekaa,” Nasr explained. His plan is to use the new buses on specific routes in the greater Beirut area following the Rapid Transit system. This $345 million master plan had been elaborated with the World Bank since 2002 but was put on hold in 2019. It will not be revived but serve as a guideline.

The director also added that one round bus line could be operated in Tripoli, which has no urban public transportation aside to taxis and services.

For now, the new and repaired buses are due to wait another six months before being put on Lebanon’s roads. “We need time to establish a finance plan and to buy fuel, spare parts, recruit and form the bus drivers,” Nasr explained.

Transparency and inclusion

The government’s new plan to revive the public transport system doesn’t come without its share of doubts and eyebrow-heaving. “The government had no plan at all and didn’t know anything about the new buses until they arrived,” criticized Sayegh. “They didn’t care if they were accessible to handicapped people or not – or if they even are usable in Beirut. After all, they measure 12 meters in length, which makes them difficult to operate,” he added.

The opacity in France’s donation has been criticized by activists. “We demand to create a platform between civil society, the government and French experts to support the pilot,” said Faraj, whose organization represents commuters. “The French had no idea that there was any transportation in Lebanon before we showed them our map of the vans and buses,” he recounted.

Before the crisis, I would earn up to 600 000 Lira a day, but now I often make losses and cannot afford the gasoline.

He is worried that the existing informal operators will be replaced by the new state-owned buses on certain lines. “Their work is already precarious as it is, they cannot afford additional competition and unemployment,” Faraj underlined. “The same happened in 1994, when the Hariri government imported 200 new buses from Eastern Europe. Half of them were broken from the start, and the others created a fierce competition which led to tensions and even shootings,” he explained.

The RPTA refutes these concerns. The buses and bus stops will be designed to be accessible to handicapped passengers, Nasr insisted. “There will be no concurrence and we will replace no one,” he added. “The new buses will operate on specific lines with bus stops and timetables so that we won’t use the existing informal system.” His office will coordinate their efforts with existing bus lines, he claimed.

Faraj is not convinced. “The RPTA and ministry don’t see the informal operators as legitimate, although they are resilient and are organically part of the society.” He suspects the officials to talk only with larger private companies, such as Connexion and Tripoline. “We demand a democratic, open and participatory process, which includes all operators and drivers,” Faraj said.

Phantom syndicates and workers’ rights

For him, the main problem lies in the state’s neoliberal and sectarian politics. “They want to control and organize the public transports to suit them, instead of supporting the actual shared services and making them more inclusive,” he criticized.

Sipping coffee while surveying the Dora roundabout, Faraj pointed toward a building on the opposite side of the road. “That’s the seat of one drivers syndicate, with ties to Christian political parties like the FPM or the Lebanese Forces,” he said. There are about 26 syndicates for operators and drivers, grouped in four unions, and structured along sectarian lines. In Cola, the syndicates are mainly affiliated with Hezbollah, Amal and the PSP.

“These syndicates don’t defend drivers’ rights and create better working conditions. Instead, they are like sponges, sucking in all anger and unrest to disarm them,” he explained. No elections, no demonstrations: the syndicates are headed by party officials and create a self-feeding loop. This explains the bad working conditions of the bus drivers.

“I work from 6am to 9pm, every day of the week. It’s very tiring,” said Aboudi, a 40-year-old bus driver on the line between Beirut and Amchit. He rents his bus from an operator for 450 000 Lira and is barely able to make anything of his four daily round trips. “Before the crisis, I would earn up to 600 000 Lira a day, but now I often make losses and cannot afford the gasoline,” he said. No health insurance, no contracts, no working rights are guaranteed to him. “One big problem is that bus drivers don’t share a common conscience as workers and remain divided, so they cannot fight for better conditions,” Faraj lamented.

From trains to buses…

Behind this critical situation stands a long history of blossoming and decay. It is beyond any doubt that the golden age of Lebanon’s public transportation system lies way behind. The first train line was inaugurated in 1895, connecting Beirut to Damascus. Lebanon was connected to the Berlin-Baghdad railway, all the way to Hijaz or Haifa. Both Tripoli and Beirut possessed their own tramway line, driven first by horses, and then by electricity – which was installed in Lebanon in 1910 for this purpose. 

Before the civil war, the network had expanded up to 200 km of tracks and 40 train stations. Tramway and train workers also spearheaded social movements at the time, organizing massive strikes to claim for commuting justice, electricity distribution and fairer wages. 

But the civil war and the government’s car-focused policies gradually halted the public railway. “The discovery of petroleum led to a huge car boom, and the tramways were dismantled as early as 1964 [by Pierre Gemayel] to give rise to highways, cars, and buses,” explains Faraj. They are more profitable, as the government makes benefits from gasoline sales. And the workers unions were undermined by new phantom syndicates, installed by the political class, Faraj added.

Transportation is political, and France’s influence on Lebanon is not rocket science.

The bombed-out railways were never rebuilt. Today, the old French-style train stations stand abandoned or are reconverted as nightclubs. Mar Mikhail’s old station might even be partially transformed into a museum. Some remains of the railway can be spotted by watchful eyes in Geitawi or along the coastal highway. “They pose the question of preservation and rehabilitation,” said Elias Abou Mrad, from Train Train, an NGO which advocates for the train to be revived.

… Back to trains?

In August 2019, Train Train publicly launched the plan for a Tripoli-Beirut coastal train, along with ex-minister Youssef Fenianos and Ziad Nasr. “Our plan was entirely self-funded. We were already working on a national railway masterplan for Lebanon, and Fenianos provided access to previous studies,” the engineer said.

He also conducted a study to rebuild the Beirut port area after the August 4, 2020 explosion. “Everything has to be interlinked: the buses, the trains, the port, together with the society and environment,” he insisted. As an example, the port would serve as a hub to hop off the train onto the bus, and to transfer maritime merchandise to freight trains. But Abou Mrad also advocates for making the port a public space, with an accessible beach and a memorial space including the destroyed grain silos.

For now, all the plans are on hold, and Abou Mrad has not been contacted by the RPTA about connecting the fifty new French buses with the train project. “I hope that the bus and train plans will be compatible, along with the port rehabilitation,” he said. “Let’s give the minister and RPTA the benefit of the doubt.”

French touch

There is another common aspect to the bus, train, and port: France’s influence. The train system could potentially be handed to Alstom, the French company responsible for building its famous TGV (high-speed trains). Transportation Minister Ali Hamieh visited Alstom in January 2022 to find an agreement.“We surely would prefer that to other countries, because we have many shared experiences,” said Abou Mrad, who attended workshops with Alstom in 2020. “And we surely adhere more to France’s vision of society than to China’s,” he added, as a reference to the PRC’s offer to revamp Lebanon’s railway. 

The same pattern has been repeated at Beirut’s port. The French company CMA-CGM won its tenders in the face of a Chinese proposal. Owned by Lebanese-French billionaire Rodolphe Saadé, it is one of the dominating maritime freight companies worldwide, and now manages both the Beirut and Tripoli ports – as such, it controls all maritime entryways into Lebanon. 

The bus system is only the latest aspect of the “French touch,” as Emmanuel Macron’s government and CMA-CGM worked together to donate the fifty buses and repair forty others for free. “Transportation is political, and France’s influence on Lebanon is not rocket science,” Faraj said, ironically.

An implicit support to the ruling elite

Although many lauded the generosity of Lebanon’s “mother country” and historical mandate, this move also provoked some suspicion. “French diplomacy is basically giving free floaters to Lebanese politicians affiliated to Hezbollah,” such as Amal Minister Ali Hamieh and PM Najib Mikati, said a civil society campaigner wishing to remain anonymous. Mikati himself was transportation minister in 1998.

French diplomacy stinks. There is nothing wrong with sending buses, and we are not in a position to decline any offer. but I am disgusted by France preaching values and not upholding them.

The timing of France’s bus gift has been questioned by many observers. “The announced deal arrived just before the elections and strengthened the current regime,” the campaigner added. For them, this move served as a “smokescreen” to divert from the opacity of the Beirut port tenders.

“CMA-CGM basically got Beirut port for free. The tenders were rushed, there was no real competition. This makes clear that Lebanon is France’s reserved domain: Ali Hamieh gave them the port, and in exchange he got some free buses,” the source criticized. CMA-CGM has previously been under scrutiny for suspected collusion with Hezbollah. Its CEO, Rodolphe Saadé, is close to Macron’s government– his father, Jacques Saadé, was a friend to Jacques Chirac and Saad Hariri. 

And Jean-Baptiste Jebbari, France’s transportation minister who negotiated the bus donation to Lebanon in March, was even offered a high-ranking position at CMA-CGM, one month later. This move was refused by the French High Authority for the transparency of public life.

France and Belgium had built Lebanon’s railway and tramway system under Ottoman rule, before expanding it under the French mandate from 1916 to 1946. France’s influence in Lebanon has since then remained constant, from economic support to geopolitical soft power. President Macron inaugurated a new era when he visited Beirut after the blast, and promised to pressure Lebanese politicians away from power.

Yet, its actual actions have been much more controversial. France shipped tear gas and armored vehicles to the Internal Security forces repressing the 2019 demonstrations, has never implemented strong sanctions against politicians unless pressured by citizens. And has used French taxpayer’s money to finance the Lebanese Armed Forces and buy its ruling elites time through the Paris 1, Paris 2 and CEDRE conferences. Observers have accused Macron’s initiatives of having not only weakened the protest movements, but also keeping the status quo in power.

“French diplomacy stinks. There is nothing wrong with sending buses, and we are not in a position to decline any offer. but I am disgusted by France preaching values and not upholding them”, said the anonymous source. France gave Lebanon its latest reminder that every gift comes with a price.

Philippe Pernot is a French-German freelance journalist and photographer currently based in Tripoli, Lebanon. He studied political science in France and Germany, and he focuses his work on social movements such as feminism, ecology and anarchism, as well as on minority rights and discrimination. Follow him on Instagram.